My Thoughts on Criticism


Criticism- Art’s Loyal Companion

(This article appeared in The East African February 1-7 2011)

"The Ideal Critic" by Ronald Searle

IT is said that King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France, a great lover and patron of the arts, and because of whom classical French literature and music flourished, asked the critic Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711) to comment on a poem he had written. Boileau, obviously torn between upsetting the king and telling the truth- as a good critic does- replied, “Nothing is beyond Your Majesty’s power. Your Majesty set out to write a bad poem and has succeeded brilliantly!”

Many artistes view critics with a lot of suspicion because the word ‘criticise’ is often taken to mean ‘to find fault with’ and not ‘to understand and appraise’.

On January 22, I watched the Heartstrings production Oh My God! which was played to a house full of a thoroughly amused audience but if I gave my honest view about it, I would most likely be dismissed as an academic killjoy.

Such a sentiment is echoed by 19th Century American social critic Washington Irving who wrote, ironically, (being a critic himself) in the Morning Chronicle, “the critics, my dear Jonathan, are the very pests of society…they reduce our feelings to a state of miserable refinement and destroy entirely all the enjoyments in which our coarser sensations delighted.”

There are some practitioners however, like the legendary British director Peter Brook, who have lovely things to say about theatre critics:  “A critic is always serving the theatre when he is hounding out incompetence. If he spends most of his time grumbling, he is almost always right.”

My opinion is that there couldn’t be a better time for theatre criticism in Kenya and the region. In fact, a recent World Bank report highlighted the growth of the African middle class. In Kenya, this rise in affluence means that more people are able and willing to pay KSh 500 for a theatre ticket than there were some years ago and more organisations are willing to sponsor theatre. As a result, there are more people taking up theatre and other arts as their full-time career which has inevitably led to the current ‘renaissance’ of the arts.

However, while patronage makes art flourish, (constructive) criticism refines it. Boileau, for instance, whose single passion was ‘the hatred of stupid books’ wrote extensively against what he perceived to be the bad taste of his time and as a result, he is credited for reforming French poetry of his time.

Most people are of the view that a critic sets out to fault a work of art and send off a nasty little piece to the editor but nothing could be further from the truth. I am a theatre critic because I love theatre and every time I go to watch a play, I hope I will enjoy it. What’s more, it is far easier to critique a good play than it is to critique a bad one because in the latter case I have the daunting task of thinking up academic ways to say that a play was a complete toss.

There is a general feeling globally, however, that theatre criticism is ‘diminishing’, with critics like Canadian Michael Vaïs pointing fingers at ‘amateurish journalists’ who have limited background knowledge of theatre, and that theatre criticism has been reduced to ‘star ratings’.

In writing for theatre, I hope to first and foremost speak to the theatre goers, especially the readers of The East African, their choice of newspaper being reflective of their more discerning tastes. While a critic’s opinion is open to debate, the facts he or she underpins, give the audience a better understanding of the play and how theatre works in general, making them a more astute audience. Accordingly, the more demanding the audience is, the greater the effort the artists will have to make.

Thus, I hope that my criticism will be of benefit to my readers but more importantly, that my opinion will not adversely affect their independent judgment of theatre productions or diminish their enjoyment of the theatre experience.

Even while the theatre critic aspires to bridge the gap between a performance and the audience, many theatre critics, including myself, hope to engage the artistes in some sort of dialogue. This exchange is what forms the essential link between theory and practice.

As British critic Michael Billington (who has been the drama critic for The Guardian since 1971) says, “Criticism, to me, is not the last word: simply part of a permanent debate about the nature of the ideal theatre.”

© Anne Manyara 2011

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